When I was a child, I was told a wonderful story about 12 princesses named after the months who were each gifted a songbird in a beautiful gilded cage. Ignoring dire warnings from the others that it would fly off and never return, Princess September sets her bird free and it continues to visit and sing joyously for her long after all the other birds have sickened and died in captivity.
From the time my son started walking and looking at the world around him, I taught him to respect not just animals and trees but everything that lives. Not to step on ants, not to experiment with butterfly wings, not to pull off leaves or grass stalks while idling by. To instill respect is difficult. It has to be done by making the subject come alive in the mind. To realise that the living being has an entity, a love-life, attachments, children, intelligence, a fear of death, great joy and great hunger.
And that it has a very important function in the process that keeps us alive. Birds are among the most beautiful and valuable life forms on this earth. They act as seed carriers, plant pollinators and pest controllers. They have inspired poems and planes. My heart lifts when I hear the noisy chattering of parrots or the plaintive love call of a koel, I tremble and thrill when I see a fledgling learning to fly.
I am amazed by the ingenuity of birds and how like us they really are—look at female birds and women for example. Tailor birds make their nests by bending together one or more living leaves to make a cone, puncturing the leaves near the edge with the beak and sewing them up with spider webs or threads they have picked up. They line this with plant wool and animal hair. Sounds like a lot of women I know.
What kind of males are the females attracted to? A female Baya Weaverbird is attracted by the interior lining of the nest built by the male. She adopts it and the male who comes with it. The Arctic Tern female assesses the worth of the courting male by the size and quantity of the fish he brings. Moorhen females, who do most of the food collecting, get the pick of the males but their choice is, surprisingly for small males—because they need less food to keep healthy. Button Quail ladies occupy the territories, defend them and fight amongst themselves. When a strange male enters a female’s territory he prostrates himself to show that he is harmless. Female Darwin’s Rheas group together to watch a lone male’s display and then line up to mate and lay eggs in the nest that he scrapes out of the ground, after mating they leave and he hatches the eggs and brings up the babies while they go off to leer at other males. Nice!
Males, of course are all the same! The magnificent male Bird of Paradise spends hours plucking obstructing leaves from the trees above its courting area so that, at a certain angle, its iridescent plumage will be lit by shafts of sunlight. The male Stork is mute but that doesn’t stop his courting. He lays his bill along his lady’s neck and whispers with his mandibles. The Satin Bower Bird and the Regent Bower Bird paint their nests by using a piece of bark in their beak as a paintbrush, applying a pigment made of charcoal, fruit juice and saliva on the walls.
Birds in the sky cause a feeling of wonder, of joy, of freedom, of excitement.
I feel sickened by the sight of a bird in a cage.
An exquisite winged thing that should be soaring through the sky trapped helplessly in a wire cage to be poked and prodded as a curiosity and then ignored and left to die when the novelty has worn off.
Imagine the terror, loneliness, boredom, frustration and hopelessness of a life sentence. This is what we do to hardened criminals. I cannot understand anyone inflicting it on a little bird just for fun.
When you cage a bird, you deprive it of its natural habitat, food, family and freedom—you might as well kill it—in fact you will because birds in captivity die painful premature deaths. In nature parrots have an average lifespan of around 20 years, a caged parrot is lucky to survive 6.
Few people know anything about caring for the birds they buy—they are just amusements for children—to be tossed out and replaced as easily and cheaply as toys.
Apart from cutting short the lives of the birds you buy, you are also responsible for killing thousands more by supporting an extremely cruel trade. Here is just one of the ways that birds are caught: the bird catcher spreads a net, wounds one bird, rendering it unable to fly and places it there. The injured bird cries out in pain and fear. Responding to its calls, others flock around to help. As soon as there is a goodly gathering, the net is drawn in with scores of struggling birds inside. Some of them break their wings from getting stuck in the netting, others die of fright.
These birds are stuffed into sacks one on top of another so more dies of suffocation. More will die during transportation, in trucks, trains, and non-pressure controlled plane cargo holds with no food or water. More still will perish squashed up in wire cages being peddled from colony to colony in the heat and dust.
India has the largest trade in wild birds in the world. All of it illegal. Under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, it is illegal to hunt, capture, kill, buy or sell wild birds/animals, or even attempt to do so. Similarly, it is also illegal to damage bird eggs or nests. The punishment for anyone caught either buying or selling birds or their meat is a fine of Rs.25, 000/- per bird and jail up to 6 years. However as people continue to be apathetic to the sight of birds behind bars; traders will continue to rob our skies.
If you want to help, you must remember that it is as important to punish the trader as it is to release the birds. I get letters from people who relate how they have bought and released birds they saw stuffed tightly into cages. While that is a wonderful thing to do, it doesn’t really solve the problem, in fact it encourages the trade for having sold their lot these dealers simply go out and get more.
Winter has come and thousands of wild birds will die due to predators, disease, starvation, bad weather and accidents. Don’t let’s add to that number.
You can do your bit to keep birds in the sky by:
- Reporting any birds offered for sale, to the nearest police station along with the relevant Wildlife Act since most policemen don’t know it. If the birds can fly they should be released early in the morning of a mild day in the nearest wooded area that has a water body close by. Sprinkle plenty of birdseed in the area. The seller should be arrested. After registering an FIR against the bird seller, contact the Wildlife Warden in your city to take up and bring charges against the offender.
- Putting out different grains and clean water in your garden, on the roof of your house or on the balcony. You will be rewarded with a regular stream of winged visitors whom you can enjoy without taking prisoner.
My house is freely shared with birds, animals and insects. We make no attempt to cuddle them, or love them, or capture them; we simply share space and food with them. As a result this house is like the old farmhouses of my grandparents’ days. Different bird noises, squirrel cheeps, long grass, butterflies and bees, fruit trees and flowers.
You too can create an island of joy by learning to respect the life and liberty of all living beings.